Monday, September 12, 2005

Not Bourbon St., but it'll do


Monday September 12, 2005

Not Bourbon St., but it'll do
* Creative types who were forced to flee New Orleans are regrouping and reconnecting in laid-back Lafayette, La.

By Reed Johnson and Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writers

LAFAYETTE, La. -- Like those of so many artists and musicians, Peter Nu's life was scattered to the four winds when Hurricane Katrina ripped up the Gulf Coast two weeks ago. He's still not sure when he'll be able to go home to New Orleans, and what sort of job prospects may greet him once he gets there.

But this last weekend, Nu was back tapping out jangly melodies on his steel drum at an impromptu art fair here in the heart of Cajun country, about two hours northwest of New Orleans. Admittedly, the crowds were a bit smaller and not quite as funky as those in the French Quarter. But Nu seemed relieved just to be making music again.

"Every time I get settled, some cosmic force moves me," Nu said, taking a cigarette break between sessions in front of Chris' Po-Boy, a local sandwich shop. "When they let people back in [to New Orleans], I might go back. But I might stay here."

Since Katrina slammed into this region of soggy landscapes and resolute people, Baton Rouge has become a temporary command center for businesses and planners drawing up blueprints for the area's comeback. Many artists, on the other hand, have passed over the buttoned-down state capital and headed for laid-back Lafayette. It's likely that hundreds, if not thousands, of musicians, artists, photographers, writers, designers and other creative talents have fled New Orleans in Katrina's wake, both the world-famous and the not-so-famous. Some have strayed as far away as Memphis, Nashville, Houston, New York and Los Angeles.

But few places are likely to absorb as many artists, or welcome them as handsomely, as this easygoing, culture-hungry city of roughly 110,000, give or take several thousand evacuees currently lodged in the Cajundome. Whether for reasons of family, history, geography, or just because many people in both places would rather pound rocks than be caught living elsewhere in the state, New Orleans and Lafayette are growing cozier by the day.

"There are an awful lot of people here who have friends and family in New Orleans in general," said Marce Lacouture, a musician who hosts a culture program on Lafayette public radio. "There are a lot of people who know each other from working at the [New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival]. There are an awful lot of musicians and artists who have connections here. I know of several places where there are 10 to 12 people who are all writers, artists or musicians, all staying at a friend's place. We're in the process now of trying to figure out just how many musicians are here."

Settled by refugees of another massive upheaval -- the expulsion of French-speaking immigrants from British-ruled Canada some 250 years ago, known as "Le Grand Derangement" -- Lafayette is the epicenter of Cajun culture. It's an amiable hotpotch of African American and French-Canadian cultural flavors, and the community regards itself as a kind of sister city to Creole-influenced New Orleans, on the other side of a vast swamp.

Barry Ancelet, a folklorist and professor of Francophone Studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said that improvisation lies at the heart of the regional culture, whether in food, music, architecture or any other art form. Following both world wars, he said, there were systematic efforts made to get the local Cajuns to abandon their native culture, stop speaking French and assimilate with the rest of the country. But those efforts were resisted, and now it's widely recognized that the region's quirky charms represent a rich and irreplaceable legacy. He believes that Katrina has intensified that local sense of identity. "When something like this happens," he said, "the old stuff comes roaring out."

It sure roared out Saturday night at the Cajun/zydeco benefit concert for the Red Cross held in a downtown park. Dubbed "Banding Together," the event corralled local musicians, displaced artists from New Orleans and nationally known performers such as Michael Doucet of BeauSoleil before a howling, boogeying, red-beans-and-rice-eating crowd estimated at 7,000. Many people here have responded to the Crescent City's suffering the way a protective younger sibling might to an older, more brittle one in distress.

"We've got to do something to help these people," said Nate Williams, 18, the accordion-squeezing front man of Lil' Nathan & the Zydeco Big Timers Band, shaking off the sweat backstage after he and his band wrapped up their set here at the benefit, which was expected to raise several thousand dollars. A Lafayette native, Williams said he was impressed but not surprised that his hometown had turned out in force to support the troubled folks farther downstate. "A piece of our culture has been, not torn away, but damaged," he said. "It's not going to be the same if they can't get it back together."

For their part, some of the displaced artists who've relocated here temporarily say they feel right at home -- at least as "at home" as possible when your house or apartment may be under 6 feet of water, your instruments are missing or destroyed, and your former bandmates could be somewhere halfway across the country. Though Lafayette may not be Bourbon Street, some evacuees say, this city affords a dry place to lay your guitar or fiddle, and a supportive atmosphere.

"We're doing pretty well," said Eddie Bo, a well-known jazz, blues and funk piano player, who's staying with a friend in Church Point, 20 miles northwest of Lafayette. Most of his band is now in the Lafayette area, Bo said, and the members are already trying to line up gigs. "I don't think we're going to have that same ambience anymore that's always been there in New Orleans. We'll have some of it. But everybody's going to be different."

Like other Lafayette residents, Karen Hamilton, who's hosting Bo and his sister, Veronica Randolph, and used to run a New Orleans coffee shop and cafe with them called Check Your Bucket, emphasizes the positive things that have resulted from the uproar of the last two weeks. "God doesn't close a door without opening up a window," she said, "something good has to happen from this."

The decision of so many artists to relocate here is no coincidence. Lafayette has a cultural richness that many much larger urban areas would envy. Saturday night, hundreds of locals and out-of-towners roamed the bars, restaurants and art galleries of the city's restored downtown. Young parents pushing toddlers in strollers passed by Goth rockers lolling against the brick building facades.

Architect Greg Walls, who works in the David Courville Architect firm housed in a stylishly renovated building, said of Lafayette: "It's such a small town, and yet it still has that metropolitan feel."

Maureen Brennan, executive director of the Cite des Arts, an arts and educational center housed in a rambling downtown building, said she is looking for ways to open up the facility as a performance venue for displaced jazz and blues musicians. Cite des Arts already hosts Cajun and zydeco dance classes, live theater performances and French classes, among many other activities. "I'm from Oklahoma, but one of the things that's kept me here is the incredible amount of talent," Brennan said.

At least one other downtown hangout, the 307 Jazz & Blues Club, is assisting musicians to find work, pay their bills and repair or replace their equipment.

While musicians so far are getting the bulk of the media attention, other types of artists have been receiving, and offering, shelter from the storm. John Perret, a painter who lives in Lafayette but displayed his work at Jackson Square in the French Quarter, organized an open-air show for himself and other displaced artists over the weekend. Perret was part of an ad-hoc flotilla of 400 boats from the Lafayette area that helped rescue Katrina survivors. Now he and his wife are hosting several New Orleans artist friends and friends-of-friends at their home.

Scott Jordan, editor of the Independent Weekly, an alternative newspaper, said he has about 17 people staying with him -- adults, a baby and other children, plus two cats. Many are writers or photographers, including the current editor of the New Orleans alternative paper Gambit Weekly. "There's a lot of energy in the house, there's good energy here," Jordan said. "For folks who are here, they need to address things as soon as possible, like health insurance, mortgage, food stamps. There's not a lot of time for moping around. There's lots of activity. The phone rings constantly. We've got four computers running now. Everybody's working, trying to do as much as they can, not only to try and figure out their own personal situations, but to get some answers for why this happened and where we go from here."

Some cultural workers here believe that out of this disaster-induced fusion of Cajun and Creole, New Orleans and Lafayette cultures, striking new hybrid art forms may emerge. "You pull out an accordion in any other part of the country and people run the other way," said Matthew Goldman, a music producer and press and advertising director for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival who is heading up Project Heal. "I think people in New Orleans are going to pair up with people here and make music here that people have never made before."

Standing backstage under a beautiful crescent moon at the end of Saturday's concert, Lafayette hospice worker Margaret Gray expressed the thoughts of many people here. "We're like the best-kept secret in Louisiana," she said.

But maybe not for long.


Reed Johnson reported from Lafayette and Steven Barrie-Anthony from L.A.

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